Journey to the Center of Heaven’s Earth, Part 2
The one line at the heart of Jesus’ message for the world.
Out of the four gospels, Luke’s is the most comprehensive. Its intended audience seems to be the entire spectrum of non-Jewish peoples, as though Luke thought, if we too are going to be admitted into the New Covenant, a most thoroughgoing record of Jesus’ doings and teachings are in order. Of course, all four are magnificent, but if any gospel is going to possess the centrality of Jesus’ message to the world, it is Luke.
Scholar Kenneth Bailey writes that, in its simplest form, Luke has been organized into three sections:
- The prologue, infancy narratives, and Galilean ministry (1:1–9:50)
- The “travel narrative” (9:51–19:48)
- The passion and resurrection (20:1–24:53)
The Center of the New Testament
The central portion, the “travel narrative”, is a most intriguing ten-chapter collection focused on the teachings of Jesus, including more than twenty parables. Its opening verse reads,
And it happened, as the days leading to his being taken up above approached, that he turned his face to the journey to Jerusalem.
Thus, already in 9:51 a turning point has occurred. Jesus, knowing both the sorrow and joy of things to come, with “the long shadow of the cross falling over the entire section,” has begun his fateful trek to Jerusalem, “for at its end the passion begins.”
The content itself is unusual in that it does not appear in Mark. The two gospels have nearly the same outline, except that almost all of this middle section is missing from Mark. And many of them, (like Chapter 15) appear only in Luke’s gospel.
But perhaps most strangely (especially for a “travel narrative”), this section is written completely out of order. Bailey notes that by chapter 10, Jesus has arrived in Bethany at the edge of Jerusalem. But then in 13, he is inexplicably still on his way. More complications appear later in 13 where he is presumably back in Herod’s territory in Galilee or Perea. In 17, he is “between Samaria and Galilee.” Finally, in 19, he appears in Jericho, and for the second time proceeds to Jerusalem.
The text does not follow a geographical progression across the countryside from Galilee to Jerusalem whatsoever. This is despite Luke’s assurance, “it seemed good to me… to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” Being an unquestionably intelligent man, and this being a special section of his gospel, we must give Luke the benefit of the doubt. He must have had some reason for the “orderly account” being in that kind of order. But what might the reason be?
Bailey offers a solution:
It is my conviction that the entire section has a precise outline that is fashioned after models unfamiliar to us. My suggestion… is that the material is organized around nine topics that start with reference to “saving events in Jerusalem” and end with that same subject. This makes a total of 10 sections. The list then repeats, only it does so backwards and thus ends with the same topic of “saving events in Jerusalem.” The 19 sections thus exhibit inverted parallelism (chiasm).
Some of the parallels are unmistakable. There are two sections on prayer (11:1–13 and 18:1–14)… Two people ask the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” These two passages are eight chapters apart (10:25 and 18:18). There are two laments over Jerusalem, one in the center and one at the end (13:34–35 and 19:41–44). The first includes and the second follows the invocation “Blessed is he/the king who comes in the name of the Lord”.
Bailey concludes that all of this apparent lack of order turns into a precise outline when the inverted parallelism of the 19 stanzas is identified.*
And, at the middle portion of this “travel narrative” (or “Jerusalem document” as he later calls it), in the center of the center like a crowning jewel, sits Luke 15.
The Middle of Luke
Some people think Paul the star theologian of the New Testament. They are wrong.
I believe most, if not all of even the apostle’s loftiest arguments are expansions of Jesus’ simple, but inexhaustibly rich tales.
Twenty-one centuries later, these mines refuse to run out.
In regards to an early 20th century theory that each of Jesus’ parables had only one point, Bailey responds differently:
A parable of Jesus is not a logical argument that proceeds systematically to a single conclusion. Rather, each parable is like a great diamond that sheds light in a variety of directions. At the same time a white diamond cannot legitimately be examined through a blue lens and declared to be blue in color. The interpreter should not impose modern Western (or Eastern) ideas onto the parables. Rather the question for the interpreter becomes – what are the various aspects of truth that Jesus is creating for his first-century Jewish audience? I have described this elsewhere at length and called it the “theological cluster.” The image I intend is that of a cluster of grapes that forms a unit with its own integrity (and often beauty) and is yet made up of a number of grapes.
The parables of Jesus are loaded with parallelisms. And of all those that Jesus told, three shine like suns. Presumably told back to back, each is meant to be understood in light of the other two in a form of step parallelism not found anywhere else in the New Testament. This means everything revealed from the first is meant to be carried over into the second. And everything from the first two carried into the third, until the most incredible revelation of the Father’s heart toward His children dawns on the hearer.
The first tale concerns a shepherd and his sheep. The second, a woman and her coins. And the third, most famously, a father and his two sons.
Once, I received it as a picture of the way a hammer drives a spike.
When people hear about the shepherd and the sheep, there are a few oohs and ahhs at the masculine shepherd’s selflessness. Yet look, some might say, the sheep at least had the sense or ability to cry out. So Jesus drives the spike in again, this time with a woman’s coin — an object inanimate and without voice, obscured by web and darkness, and discovered by a gender which at the time was perceived as having little value.† A few more hearts are opened. So, when heaven’s gavel descends for the third time, the seekers have been changed, sealed even, into the best news they’ve ever heard.
Taken together, I believe these form the centerpiece — the linchpin — of the New Covenant gospel.
The sheer number of Christian themes introduced in the space of three brief stories is astonishing.
- Costly grace.
- Joy and rejoicing.
- The value of lost people.
- The worth of women.
And assuredly many more. One grasps that Jesus, though conservative in speech is “like a wise master builder” laying a foundation that is going to stand the test of time.
Yet, among these parables, one of the three stands out in both size and scope.
The Main Thing in 15
Before we enter the last story in this chapter, it is important that we know the Law of the period. For, just as the woman caught in adultery had a very real judicial precedent for her crime, so had wayward sons:
“If a person has a stubborn, rebellious son who pays no attention to his father or mother, and they discipline him to no avail, his father and mother must seize him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his city. They must declare to the elders of his city, “Our son is stubborn and rebellious and pays no attention to what we say—he is a glutton and drunkard.” Then all the men of his city must stone him to death. In this way you will purge out wickedness from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid.” (Deut. 21:18–21)
Some commentators have glossed over it, but the idea that a son would request the division of the estate by his living father was unthinkable. In his book on the subject, Kenneth Bailey claims to have searched countless ancient documents and inquired of other scholars on the matter. He concludes that there is no evidence of this happening in written record. Without exaggeration, the request is equivalent to wishing his father dead. Apparently the young man has plans that he wants to get on with and his father is in the way, which renders, “If a person has a stubborn and rebellious son…” as quite the understatement.
In fact, so offensive is this idea to Middle Eastern culture that the man would not have been faulted for destroying such a son on the spot.
But there is a third character in this opening transaction as well, one we may have missed. An unwritten assumption is being made here about the other son, for the elder ought to have taken on the role of mediator. We should read, “And the older straightaway confronted the younger before any further mischief could be done…” And possibly, “Interceding on his behalf, the older begged his father to have mercy on him.”
But what do we get? The elder’s stony silence, and the uncontested division of the estate. More scandalously still, the father grants his son’s request without protest. And so, one of the most controversial of all of Jesus’ stories begins.
The Axis of the Father’s Parable
I leave you then with this parallelism — Luke 15:11–32 laid out in both a concise and expanded form. Bailey’s own configuration differs in that he splits the parable into two sequential parallelisms, focusing on the two lost sons. In this parallelism, however, I have chosen to focus on the good Father who finds them.
As a result, I believe Luke 15:20 to be the absolute center-point of the New Covenant message; the one line in Jesus’ teachings that he intended as the hinge on which the coming (now current) Kingdom age would turn. Any life reflected in it is a bulls-eye — anything else, missing the mark. If it is not the most beautiful line in all of human history, it has certainly been in mine!
A. A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said to the
B. “Father, give me the share of the property falling to me.” And
he divided his living between them.
C. And not many days later, the younger son, having collected
everything, departed for a far country and squandered his
property by wild living.
D. When he had spent everything a severe famine spread throughout
that country, and he began to be in need.
E. So he went and attached himself to one of that country's
citizens, who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs.
F. He longed to fill his stomach with the carob pods that
the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.
G. Coming to his senses he said, “How many of my father's
hired men are overflowing with bread, but here I am dying
H. I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “I have
sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer
worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your
hired workers.” And he rose and went to his own father. I. And while he was yet far away, his father saw him and,
his heart being moved with pity, ran and fell upon his
neck and kissed him fervently. H. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against
heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called
G. But the father said to his slaves, “Hurry! Bring out the
best robe and put it on him, and place a ring on his finger
and sandals on his feet,
F. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us sit and
have good cheer, because this son of mine was dead and has
come to life again—was lost and has been found!” And they
began to celebrate.
E. But his older son was in a field; and as he came and drew
near the house, he heard music and dancing. And calling one
of the servants over he asked what all this might be.
D. And he told him, “Your brother has come, and your father
has killed the fattened calf because he has got him back safe
C. But he became indignant and did not wish to go in. His father
came out and pleaded with him, but in reply he said, “Look, for
so many years I have been slaving for you, and have never
disobeyed a command.
B. Yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my
friends. But when this son of yours came, he who devoured your
livelihood with whores, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
A. The father said to him, “My child, you are always with me, and
all my things are yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice,
because this brother of yours was dead and came to life, was lost
and has been found.”
* Some will undoubtedly ask why Luke, a non-Hebrew, would have composed his gospel in this Hebraic way. The most likely answer is that this middle section was not original to him, but a compilation discovered or given to the doctor at the time of his visit to Jerusalem, probably by one of those “many who had undertaken to compile a narrative” (Luke 1:1) and had access, like him, to “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (1:2).
† Concerning this, Bailey makes a remarkable comment about value: “The worth of a coin is undiminished because it is lost. The sheep may be wounded or the wool damaged. The prodigal may be “messed up” as a person by his experiences in the far country. But the coin loses nothing of its value by being lost. This may be a partial explanation as to why this kind of an inanimate object was chosen by Jesus for such a theme. In human terms ‘the lost’ almost universally consider themselves worthless. This parable specifically denies that assumption.”
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